How Secular Humanism Shaped My View of Conservation

How Secular Humanism Shaped My View of Conservation May 24, 2018

Editors Note:  If you need to be convinced that it makes sense to take care of our earthly home, please read this. If youre already convinced, then read this for the sheer beauty of it.  //Linda LaScola, Editor


By Brandon Withrow

On the face of it, conservation seems like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we protect endangered species or land essential for an ecosystem? And yet, in the age of Trump, it clearly is not a no-brainer.When I was growing up in the evangelical world, I heard any number of reasons individuals rejected conservation, for example:

  • It is a New Ager’s idea.
  • It is a liberal idea and liberals want to destroy America.
  • We have been given dominion over the world (Gen. 1:26-28); therefore, the planet’s resources are ours.
  • The last days are here; therefore the planet is going to burn up anyway.
  • God wouldn’t have built a planet we could destroy.

(Have you heard of nukes?)

There was a time when I parroted back these responses, but, in time, I began to question them—particularly due to theological reasons.

I progressively wondered why God would create a planet he called “good,” but then be cool with his people screwing it up. I was also becoming a liberal Christian, so my conservation theology started to kick in, seeing creation care as also an essential mandate.

Additionally, I changed my mind on issues like evolution: partly because I read books on it by specialists who weren’t evangelical apologists. At the time, that meant I began to feel closer to the natural world. I began to see us as animals—clever animals and skilled primates—but still animals. I began to see us as needing to share this planet with our animal cousins.

Fast-forward a few years; I left my faith entirely. And yes, I know evangelicals who will say,

“See, that’s what you get for embracing conservation or evolution.”

It’s a false conclusion. There are, of course, many Christians who lived their entire lives embracing science and supporting conservation efforts because their theology spoke to it. These ideas are not simply gateway beliefs.

But I did eventually—and for a wide range of reasons—land as a secular humanist.

What is a humanist? The American Humanist Association’s short definition is as good as any:

“Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”

That is a very different way to see the world.

In many ways, religious and non-religious persons who support conservation and sustainability can arrive at the same practical outcome: protecting nature. They can reasonably work together in that effort. There are, however, differences in the details.

As I see it, humanism provides a why with an incentive that indisputably values this world more.

The world isn’t divinely protected; we can destroy it. There is no planet B. For a humanist, there is no afterlife; there is no heavenly escape hatch. Death definitely has a sting and will eventually claim all of us. But victory over death is found in how we choose to live our lives here and now. Victory is in what we leave behind.

This gives me an incentive to try to get it right the first time. (FYI, I remain a work in progress.)

Because this is the only world we’ll know, we have to treat it kindly. In fact, our survival requires us to respect the world around us, to protect ecosystems, and to lessen our footprint. The survival of other species is tied to our own. We are latecomers, appearing on the scene long after other species had already existed and vanished. We are not the pinnacle of life created on the sixth day; we do not have a divine right to dominion.

For the humanist, living the best possible life is its own reward. Conservation, which is predicated on that idea, puts an exclamation point on its urgency. This world, Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, is our (my) home, and to love life, therefore, is to love it.

See Cosmos’s HD version of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot below


Bio: Brandon G. Withrow is a freelance journalist, author of nine books, Clergy Project member and occasional adjunct lecturer in religious studies at a local university. His newest book (co-authored with Menachem Wecker) is Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education. His work has appeared in The Religion News Service, The Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and The Huffington Post. This post is reprinted with permission from his blog, Follow him on Twitter at @bwithrow.

>>>Photo Credits: Smoky Mountains, By Brandon WIthrow ; “Donald Trump September 3 2015” by Michael Vadon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons –

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  • Brian Curtis

    You’re not the first to notice the irony that the people most opposed to, and even outraged by, conservation call themselves “conservatives.” But then, pragmatism and real-world awareness of our physical and resource limitations isn’t exactly standard for religious education.

  • See Noevo

    “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
    – Genesis 2:15

    • Anthrotheist

      So you are arguing that conservation is mandated by Genesis? “Till it and keep it” sounds to me like “utilize it and preserve it.”

      • See Noevo

        “… preserve it” … conserve it.


      • mason

        The mythical bible God isn’t really that committed to preserving or conserving planet Earth. So much for theistic conservation.
        Isaiah 24
        The Lord Will Destroy the Earth
        1The Lord is going to completely destroy everything on earth.
        He will twist its surface.
        He’ll scatter those who live on it.
        2 Priests and people alike will suffer.
        So will masters and their servants.
        And so will women and their female servants.
        Sellers and buyers alike will suffer.
        So will those who borrow and those who lend.
        And so will those who owe money and those who lend it.
        3 The earth will be completely destroyed.
        Everything of value will be taken out of it.
        That’s what the Lord has said.

        4 The earth will dry up completely.
        The world will dry up and waste away.
        The heavens will fade away along with the earth.
        5 The earth is polluted by its people.
        They haven’t obeyed the laws of the Lord.
        They haven’t done what he told them to do.
        They’ve broken the covenant that will last forever.
        6 So the Lord will send a curse on the earth.
        Its people will pay for what they’ve done.
        They will be burned up.
        Very few of them will be left.
        7 The vines and fresh wine will dry up completely.
        Those who used to have a good time will groan.
        8 The happy sounds of tambourines will be gone.
        The noise of those who enjoy wild parties will stop.
        The joyful music of harps will become silent.
        9 People will no longer sing as they drink wine.
        Beer will taste bitter to those who drink it.
        10 Destroyed cities will lie empty.
        People will lock themselves inside their houses.
        11 In the streets people will cry out for wine.
        All joy will turn into sadness.
        All joyful sounds will be driven out of the earth.
        12 All the buildings will be knocked down.
        Every city gate will be smashed to pieces.
        13 That’s how it will be on the earth.
        And that’s how it will be among the nations.
        It will be as when workers knock all but a few olives off the trees.
        It will be like a vine that has only a few grapes left after the harvest.

    • ElizabetB.

      I love how Genesis calls the human “earthling” — “adam,” from the earth, “adamah.”

      • See Noevo

        And the very word human comes from “humus”, meaning earth/soil.

        • ElizabetB.

          I like this very much, but all the etymologies I see are very roundabout — do you have a good link?

          • See Noevo
          • ElizabetB.

            Yikes, See, I got a glimpse & then a popup security warning saying all my info was being stolen & there’d be dire results if I didn’t call a certain number. Just finished contacting MicroSoft, “tossing my cookies,” shutting down & restarting. Have you used that site often with no problems?

          • Linda_LaScola

            I hope the warnings were legitimate — they sound like stuff I’ve seen that was not legit. The suppposed Microsoft number was a scammer.

          • ElizabetB.

            I suspected the warning was a scam, and I did not call the number, but for me it’s scary to have everything “freeze” — and you wonder whether it might be legit — the logo etc looked official, the warnings were dire, and everything seems frozen. It took a lot of trial and error to get to Microsoft via a different window and I almost got to the point of calling. One of the Microsoft articles I was finally directed to said that the scam number typically takes you to someone who charges a lot to “unblock” or clean up your computer.

            Hopefully the scam is not connected to this particular link, but I decided to mention it just in case it might be. Thanks, Linda!

          • See Noevo

            I’ve never used the site before, but I’ve gotten no warnings.

          • ElizabetB.

            My husband had a problem with a site this week — maybe it’s a local ailment. Glad it worked for you!!

          • mason lane

            Rule #1 never go to a link posted by a troll

          • ElizabetB.

            # notalltrolls : )

    • mason

      Here’s some more silly stuff “Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.” Genesis 2:22

      • carolyntclark

        hmmm….Adam’s rib would have had his DNA. Eve would be a clone…an identical Male .

  • ElizabetB.

    Thanks so much for The Pale Blue Dot, and the lovely photograph of the Smokies… one of earth’s most meaningfully beautiful places. Thank you!

    I’m in the middle of Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons of Physics,” so for the past few days I’ve been thinking about the oddness of how meaningful all my issues seem, when the universe/s are even more vast than I ever thought of imagining — & I thought I’d been imagining vastly!!!! The contrast is mindboggling — how can my issues seem so important when our physical location is so minuscule?!!

    — Yet they are vastly important to this dot!!!!!!! — On Tuesday:

    “WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday barred reporters from three news organizations from an event on the impact of toxic chemicals on drinking water at the agency’s headquarters.

    ….”Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of The A.P., called the agency’s ‘selective barring’ of reporters ‘alarming,’ and added, ‘It is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed.’…

    ….”Since taking office last spring, [Pruitt] has won praise from President Trump and criticism from environmentalists for trying to ease regulations on industry, including safety rules on hazardous chemicals. He has also faced criticism for operating in secrecy. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Pruitt does not publish a daily appointment calendar, and the E.P.A. has shut down more than 1,900 web pages on topics like climate change during his tenure.”

    Yes! It’s going take all of us working together!!!!!!!!!!!

  • mason

    I certainly would preferred to have been raised as a Humanist. I would gladly have done without all the false dilemma, drama, superstition, delusional, indoctrinated guilt, anti-science, zombie & blood sacrifice lingo, anti-conservation, huge waste of time, cultural divisiveness, historical lies, homophobia, … and the thousands of Sunday & Wednesday hours wasted in Evangelicalism.

    This would have done aptly and nicely for me: “Humanism is a progressive life-stance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”